Trick or Treat? – The tale of how our manuscript was swept along by the IPCC process

The pace of scientific research is increasingly being dictated by external forces. But to the extent these sped-up timelines help to focus a team’s efforts and ensure that project outcomes are timely and relevant, it may not be such a bad thing … if only a bit stressful.

Go to the profile of David McCollum
Sep 19, 2018
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It’s Halloween 2017 in London, one of the few major cities outside North America where the holiday is celebrated in a pretty big way. However, there’s no costume, or ‘fancy dress’, for me this year; no going out with friends. Instead, I’m sitting in my Airbnb – over from Vienna for a conference – working like mad to submit a paper by midnight. 

For it was on this particular Halloween night that I was trying hard to wrap up the initial submission of our Nature Energy paper “Energy investment needs for fulfilling the Paris Agreement and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals” (https://go.nature.com/2MKOPYl), a manuscript that was truly a team effort and one that spanned a couple years of work prior to that point. I therefore owed it to my co-authors, all twenty-eight of them, to get the paper submitted on time. (And in this sense, I should really be using the ‘We’ form in most parts of this post.)

Why the hard deadline? Short answer: the IPCC. November 1st, 2017, was one of the first community-wide deadlines in the process of preparing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C” – a process way bigger than me and my author team. That day had previously been determined to be the ‘literature cut-off date’ for submitted papers. In other words, for a piece of work to be 'assessable' (or drawn upon) by the author team drafting the SR1.5, the paper needed to be submitted to a journal – any journal – by that day, no exceptions. Naturally, my colleagues and I really wanted to hit that cut-off. It would not have been the end of the world if we hadn’t, but it was definitely worth a try. Our science was solid; we had worked and reworked our analyses over a period of months; the text had undergone at least a dozen revisions. Although we had long since planned to work toward a paper submission in the latter part of the year, in the end the IPCC deadline gave us just the kick we needed to prioritize the work and get the paper out the door, and without compromising on scientific quality. It was a very rewarding feeling to submit our paper to Nature Energy on that Hallows’ Eve, even if we only met our deadline by a few minutes.

Turns out that early deadline around Halloween wasn’t the only one we would need to meet along the journey toward manuscript acceptance. Another one was May 14th, 2018, the SR1.5’s literature cut-off date for finally accepted papers. Fortunately for us, we also managed to make that deadline as well – by a comfortable few days this time instead of only a few minutes.

It’s not every day in research that we’re truly up against the clock. Sure, there are proposal deadlines, theses to finish in advance of graduation, student assessments to prepare before end of term. But for papers, we’re generally working with self-imposed deadlines given to ourselves, thus something softer and less stressful. For the most part, we prioritize quality of the science over speed. And even in today’s cutthroat world of international research, I still get the sense – from my tiny corner of this world – that the ordering of these priorities remains largely the same. (Though I hear things have changed a bit compared to the ‘good ole days’, if I listen to some of my more senior colleagues waxing nostalgically about the past.)

More and more, however, external processes and events dictate the speed and direction of science. Should it be this way? No, not always; but in some instances, yes. Each researcher will know what’s best for him or her in a given context. In our case, my co-authors and I decided from the get-go that we wanted to be policy relevant with our research; so for us it was important to feed into the IPCC process, or at least to try. As many reading this post will know, these days across much of the climate change research community, informing international climate policy discussions means feeding into the periodic IPCC assessments. Certainly this isn’t the only outlet, though it is pretty visible one. With our paper, my co-authors and I felt we had something unique to offer the discussions surrounding the Paris Agreement’s ambitious 1.5 °C target, namely what sorts of investments (in $ terms) might be needed to realize that target between now and mid-century. At the time of writing our manuscript (and eventual publication), no other scientific papers had been written on the topic.

Now that our paper is published, we’ll see if it has any impact on ongoing scientific and policy processes. Looking back, I guess I’m thankful that the strict IPCC deadlines helped to focus our team’s energies and get the work completed as quickly as possible. Though, it certainly caused a bit of stress in the process.

Go to the profile of David McCollum

David McCollum

Senior Research Scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Adam Yeeles
Adam Yeeles 3 months ago

The Special Report had the effect of both creating a short deadline and narrowly focusing the research on a specific question. There are certainly other fields that could benefit from one or both of those things. The question of whether, writ large, the field and literature is in a better place because of it is is something of an open question until at least Oct. 8 when the final report is released.